I may or may not have said this before, but Miss Tessmacher and I trade off surprising each other with an anniversary trip. On our first, we bought each other a bunch of (crap) presents, then kind of sat around the rest of the day and just did stuff. For the second, Tess said to me "Instead of getting each other a bunch of (crap) presents that we don't really need, let's take a trip somewhere." And so a great idea is born. I get the odd years, she the even, and what began as simple day-trips has morphed into an agreement that for the FIRST 10 years, we stay in the state; between 10 and 20, we stay in the country; after that, the sky's (and the budget's) the limit. It's fun, because we don't spring the surprise until we're actually on the way, and when it's your turn to plan, the planning is fun & sneaky; when it's your turn to be surprised, you just sit back and wait for it to unfold.
This was our 9th anniversary, the last I'll be required to plan in-state, and I wanted to try to get up into the north-eastern part of the mitten. We've been southeast and southwest, we've been way up to the tippy-top of the U.P., but never over by Mio/Alpena/Rogers City. So, I bid on and won a gift certificate from the WCMU spring auction. Said certificate good for a 2-night/3-day stay at Thunder Bay Golf & RV Resort. Which, ha, because neither of us golf, nor do we have an RV. But the real gift was this carriage ride out to see some elk, followed by a 5-course gourmet meal & wine tasting. Okay, that sounds good. Between seeing really big deer and a good meal, I figured we could snoop around Alpena & see what else there was to see in the general vicinity. Here's a quick run-down of our experience for those looking to get away…
1) Thunder Bay Resort: a wonderful place located just on the outskirts of Hillman on M-32. Hillman ain't much to blink at…in fact, don't, because you'll miss it. But the resort is really nice. I don't golf, but the course seemed like it was well-situated, and if you can stay right there at the resort and make a weekend of it, I guess that would be fun. The room we stayed in was actually a suite, consisting of bedroom, kitchenette, and living room. Taken together, you could easily sleep 4 couples between the two regular beds, the pullout and the Murphy bed. The appointments were nice, but nothing fancy; more like an extended version of a traditional Holiday Inn room. The elk viewing was cool, but about as contrived as I thought it would be: giant carriages meant to hold 20 people, sort of like the large tour carriages on Mackinac Island. Which, if you're not used to horse-drawn vehicles, I guess is kind of neat. Being Island folk ourselves, it was mostly just a slow trip through Mosquito Hell. The elk are fenced in, kind of like in a preserve, and they really are magnificent creatures. I see deer all the time, but these really are a different animal. Very cool. The meal was fabulous, prepared (as advertised) by the owner's wife, Jan, on a pair of 100-year-old wood-fire cookstoves. The food was great, but the wine…not so much. Mostly fruity stuff, meant for the person who doesn't drink much wine, and probably geared toward the (primarily) septuagenarian makeup of the rest of the group. The real bonus of Thunder Bay is the people: Jack, the owner, is friendly & helpful almost to a fault. His wife is gracious, a tremendous cook, and a knee-slappingly funny storyteller. The guides & drivers on the tour were humorous & kind, and all-in-all it really is a homey family affair. Which is too bad, because the place was almost deserted. We practically had our particular lodge building to ourselves, and even though the weather was sunny with temps in the 70s, I didn't see many people golfing. I definitely got the impression that taking the tour in the winter, on a sleigh instead of a carriage, is the preferred way to go. The hall where we ate was spiffed up like it was Christmastime anyway, and you wouldn't have to worry about the mosquitoes.
2) Cheboygan/Rogers City: we only drove through & wandered these two towns, but they're very nice, Cheboygan especially. Lots to see & do, especially as we wandered into a little farmer's market/arts-&-crafts fair. Nice places.
3) The drive down US-23. Listed in our county mapbook as "one of the most scenic lakeshore drives in Michigan." Total bullshit. Can't see the lake at all. I guess the copy for this mapbook was written in the '50s-'60s, because since then, the trees have grown up enough that it's like you're driving through a forest. A pretty forest, to be sure…but, there ain't no lakeshore to see. We did pass 2 (or 3?) State Park campgrounds between Cheboygan & Alpena, so if you're prone to camping there, you may want to check 'em out.
4) Alpena: a fucking ghost town. This surprised my F-i-L, who professed to thinking of Alpena as "the going thing" the last time he was there. Well, if it WAS the going thing, it went. And, from the looks of it, it ain't every comin' back. We found a few nice things: Art in the Loft was a pretty decent gallery; the National Marine Sanctuary was a fine museum about shipping on the Great Lakes; and the John A. Lau Saloon is THE place to eat, with great food and a pretty nice beer flight of Michigan microbrews. Otherwise? Alpena seemed like it was stuck in various points in its own past, bewildered that time had left it behind. I saw the '50s & '60s in many of the store signs…including many that looked like they had last been open in the '60s. I saw the '70s & '80s in many of the cars puttering around (and one mint-condition bright-yellow Schwinn Collegiate 3-speed that actually made me drool a little!). What struck both me and Tess was a depressing sense of abandonment in the town…namely, where were all the fucking PEOPLE?!? It was a beautiful Saturday, the first day of summer vacation for the kids…and there was no one. Out. On the streets! Maybe everyone took off because it was the first weekend of summer vacation…maybe the town gets hopping during some mid-summer festival. Or, maybe it's just exactly what it felt like: a town that time forgot, that got left behind when the manufacturing dried up. Too many closed stores, too many abandoned factories, and too much a sense of "when the last person dies, turn the lights out & lock the door."
Overall we did have a great time, met a cool couple on the carriage ride, and generally just enjoyed each other's company. Which, for us, is more or less what it's about. I just feel bad for that whole north-of-Tawas/east-of-Gaylord area of the state. There just ain't much goin' on, not even with tourism…which would be about the last thing you could count on, these days.
(Bonus section! If you're given to fun drives in 2-seater sportscars, M-32 between Gaylord & Alpena? One of the better drives you're likely to find. Lots of hills & curves, ample passing lanes, and, at least on the Sunday morning we drove it: ZERO police presence.)
After-dinner pose. That thing's heavy: 22 lbs!
Miss Tessmacher, chowing down at John Lau's.
Yours truly, soaking up some sun. And beer.